Style and function

One attempt to circumvent the problems posed by the desire to understand the subjective intentions, beliefs, and motivations of those populations that are known to us through archaeological analysis, has been by distinguishing two facets of human behaviour. The first relates to those aspects of behaviour that have resulted in the mechanical modifications of materials (that is, the modification to materials that might have happened at any time). The second facet of human behaviour, and its outcomes, are treated as the expressions of particular cultural traditions. Gordon Childe provided one of the clearest expositions of such a distinction by reflecting upon a hypothetical commentary that might have been offered by a middle Palaeolithic flint knapper explaining the manufacture of a flint implement thus:

[t]o make a D-scraper, collect a flint nodule (1) at full moon, (2) after fasting all day, (3) address him politely with ‘words of power’ (4) . . . strike him

thus with a hammerstone, (5) smeared with the blood of a sacrificed mouse.

(Childe 1956, 171)

Childe noted that ‘[technical and scientific progress has of course just been discovering that (1), (2), (3) and (5) are quite irrelevant to the success of the operation prescribed in (4)’ (1956, 172), although the gender-specific nature assigned to the flint nodule might now be questioned.

Childe was drawing a distinction that was similar to the one which Robert Dunnell later claimed represented the ‘fundamental dichotomy’ in archaeological reasoning (1978). The dichotomy that Dunnell believed operated was one between human actions executed according to certain cultural norms, which found expression in a particular style of working, and the mechanical outcomes that arose as the consequence of that working. The distinction invites us to accept that a difference exists between a way of doing something, such as sacrificing a mouse to make a D-scraper, and the consequences of that ‘doing’, which was the mechanical production of a functionally useable scraper. This distinction can be read as one that separates the stylistic attributes of an object, which Sackett defined as having a ‘highly specific and characteristic manner of doing something’ that is ‘always peculiar to a specific time and place’ (Sackett 1977, 370), from the function of the object or the mechanical achievement of the action. It is a distinction that has dominated archaeological analysis for some time. The mechanical processes are clearly regarded as timeless, and include an understandable relationship between the artefact and its use, such that stone and metal projectile points were, for example, designed to pierce flesh. On the other hand, the style in which such armatures were fashioned is likely to have been learnt as a culturally particular way of undertaking their production, and this was specific to time, place, and made sense to the participant in terms of how they were expected to work (Sackett 1982; cf O’Brien & Lyman 2003). Culture, from this perspective, becomes the particular way of achieving a commonly understandable result. The analytical distinction between style and function, as proposed by Dunnell, has, however, no valid application if we are attempting to understand the histories of humanly motivated behaviour, for the simple reason that the execution of any action that has functional consequences is only possible by means of a way, or a style, of acting (Boast 1997). To maintain the distinction suggested by Dunnell would be like expecting people to talk, and thus to fulfil the functional need to communicate, whilst expecting them to do so without actually using a particular language. This makes clear the post hoc nature of an archaeological reasoning that is unconcerned with the conditions that generated the actions attested for by the material, by focusing instead upon their consequences.

Archaeology' has secured a uniformitarian model of human activity by drawing a distinction between a cultural, and therefore a stylistic, way of generating an action, and the functional consequences arising from those actions. From this perception the understandable functional outcomes of an action were achieved by diverse cultural means, and it is the possession of culture that is treated as distinguishing human behaviour from that of the rest of the animal kingdom. Thus, whilst song-birds might well sing in local dialects, few biologists would treat such dialects in the same way that an anthropologist would treat cultural variability (Adkins-Regan et al. 2010), although we might now wonder why this is the case. The reason seems to be that animal behaviour develops partly by copying the behavioural traits of other members of the same species, and has been treated as being in some way biologically determined, whereas human behaviour has long been assumed to express the principle that styles represent certain cultural values which, under various conditions, might have been open to human choice, rejection or negotiation. It is therefore assumed to be unlikely that song-birds reflect upon the significance of the ways that they sing, whereas humans can reflect upon, and indeed rationalise, the proper ways in which they act, although this is not something that they necessarily choose to do very' often. To return to the example referred to earlier, the killing and butchering of an animal can certainly provide food for a human community, and humans certainly need to eat, and fulfilling this need might be taken to be the function of hunting. However, how the animal is taken, the relationship between the animal and the hunter (Ingold 2000, 61-76), and the ways that the animal is subsequently butchered, prepared, shared, and consumed are all the practical expressions of maintaining an accepted cultural order.

The distinction here appears to be between the non-negotiable and biologically derived need to eat (or to sing), and the negotiable choices of what we eat, how the food is prepared, and how, when, and with whom we eat (or sing). It is the latter choices that are taken to belong to the development of historically specific, human traditions.

If we accept that ‘one of the most striking features of human life is the extraordinary diversity of the ways of living it’ (Ingold 1994, 329) then we seem to confront a restriction upon the possible archaeological interpretations and understandings of that extraordinary diversity. Humans may be biologically disposed to think and to act in diverse cultural ways, and this means that the contentious nature of archaeological analysis is brought to the fore when human behaviour becomes the focus for understanding the formation processes of the archaeological record. Binford believed that the only way in which the logic of cultural schemes could be revealed was through the testimony of cultural informants who were asked why they had acted in a certain way. Given that this was not an option available to most archaeologists, Binford was of the view that such concerns should be put to one side by the archaeologist (Binford 1987). The suggestion that verbal testimony is an expression of cultural reasoning therefore chimes with the common assumption that cultural reasoning originates as a mental phenomenon, and that the ideas that are held ‘in people’s heads’ are revealed by verbal expression. It was presumably from this perspective that Binford referred approvingly to the argument of the philosopher and archaeologist R.G. Collin- gwood who claimed that a distinction exists between the outside and the inside of humanly generated events:

[b]v the outside of the event I mean everything belonging to it which can

be described in terms of bodies and their movements. ... By the inside of

the event I mean that in it which can only be described in terms of thought.

(Collingwood 1994, 213)

Whilst ‘the historian is never concerned with either of these to the exclusion of the other’ (ibid.), Binford argued that archaeological analysis should, to the contrary, identify how the outside events of bodies and movements were represented by material residues and avoid any concern with, and therefore any dependency upon, an unavailable testimony from an extinct humanity that might explain how archaeological deposits might have once expressed the internally derived logic and motivations for that humanity’s actions (Binford 1987).

If we were to accept for the moment Collingwood’s characterisation of human behaviour as having an inner motivation and an outer application, then Binford’s argument that we should only concern ourselves with the latter leaves us with the question of what such a limitation will do for an archaeological understanding of historical conditions. Binford’s stance certainly provides us with an understanding of the formation of the archaeological record as a series of physical transformations, but it does not provide us with a historical understanding of human behaviour. We might be able to trace some of the consequences of that behaviour, but have little notion as to the context from which it arose or the mechanisms that sustained it. We might ask, once again, whether this is the remit of archaeology: to merely explain the formation of the archaeological record? Or should archaeology employ the materials that are available to it to gain an understanding of the historical conditions that gave rise to a particular form of humanity and its associated behaviours? If we were to accept the former, then the position that Binford adopted, along with that of many other archaeologists, would appear to be justified, simply because it is on this basis that the formation of the archaeological record is explained as the mechanical outcome of processes, including those of human behaviour. The problem is that no-one outside archaeology seems to be much interested in these results, and who can blame them?

 
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